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Trump just declared a national emergency without a confirmed defense secretary in place

If this were a true national emergency to stop an “invasion,” Trump would have a permanent war chief ready to work.

President Donald Trump talks to journalists during a meeting with members of his Cabinet, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, at the White House on January 2, 2019.
President Donald Trump talks to journalists during a meeting with members of his Cabinet, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, at the White House on January 2, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump just declared a major national emergency — and he did so without a confirmed, permanent secretary of defense in place.

It’s just another sign that Trump’s plan to build his long-promised border wall is based on flimsy reasoning and questionable facts.

Trump has been falsely insisting that America suffers from an immigrant “invasion,” which is currently plowing through the border with Mexico. But his bid to secure more than $5 billion in border wall funding from a divided Congress failed twice. So now, he will circumvent the legislative process and take money from two separate military efforts — projects that were intended to stop the spread of drugs and build infrastructure — to get what he wants.

If this were a true national security emergency, the administration would trot out top defense officials to explain the threat, how the president’s move aptly curbs it, and what, exactly, would be the role of armed forces. But that’s not what’s happening.

Patrick Shanahan — the current acting Pentagon chief, who took over after Jim Mattis resigned last year over the administration’s Syria withdrawal — is in Germany giving speeches to an elite audience at the Munich Security Conference. The Joint Chiefs chair, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, isn’t scheduled to brief the press. And presently, no other Defense Department staff plans to offer public remarks.

Adding to the absurdity, the president hasn’t yet nominated a permanent replacement to take over at the Pentagon. Some say Shanahan may get the job, but it’s not his officially.

“If the national emergency was precipitated by a threat to national defense,” says retired Army Gen. John Craddock, who led US troops in South America and Europe, and commanded NATO, “then, yes, I would be concerned about having an acting defense secretary. There could be some challenges to his authority either statutorily or by those opposed to the Emergency declaration.”

But, he added, “having an acting secretary should not be detrimental nor cause for concern given the basis for this emergency declaration.” In other words, because any issues at the border are — or should — be led by civilian law enforcement, personnel at the Defense Department doesn’t matter too much.

Trump doesn’t seem terribly concerned. He plans to travel to Florida mere hours after declaring the emergency from the White House. A president, in times of strife, would typically stay in the nation’s capital to oversee the crisis. This one wants to do so from the comfort of his weekend getaway.

In effect, the president is preparing the country for a fake war, with a quasi-official war chief in place, as he plans to enjoy a mini vacation. The only national emergency here, really, is one of leadership.